A glimpse of the Sackler’s special collections

More than a month into my time at the Sackler, I am still discovering obscure but delightful aspects of its collections. One of my newly-acquired responsibilities is to fetch items from the closed stack areas of the library. Readers can consult these special collections items in a dedicated corner of the ground floor under the watchful eye of the desk staff, as these books are often old/rare/generally difficult and expensive to replace. These fascinating resources and gems from times gone by are kept in a variety of hidden places around the library.

One of these repositories is the Rare Books Room. Here a multitude of old volumes are kept under lock and key (read: sophisticated modern alarm system) in rolling stacks.


Inside the Rare Books Room [all photos taken by me]
Items in the Rare Books Room include:

  • folios and books containing accounts and drawings by 19th-century travellers to sites of interest such as those in Egypt;
  • accounts of famous archaeological excavations, such as Arthur Evans’ excavation of Knossos on the Greek island of Crete, some of which used to belong to the Ashmolean Museum Library collection;
  • drawings of artefactsheld at the British Museum in its early days.
Excavation reports
View of Petra in Jordan by Victorian Scottish artist David Roberts

Curious visitors to the Sackler Library may have noticed an intriguing room set back from the edge of the main reading room on floor 1 called the Wind Room. Though this may sound like a reference to something classical or elemental, it is actually named after Edgar Marcel Wind. Wind was a German academic who became Oxford’s first Art History professor in 1955, after a stint as a lecturer at All Souls. More information about Wind and his time at Oxford can be found here . The Wind Room itself mostly contains books about western art printed between 1500-1900. Because of their age, the books are treated as special/rare books, and are locked inside caged shelves that I think are actually rather attractive.

Caged books in the Wind Room

There is also an Archives Room containing archives of various Classicists and archaeologists, along with MPhil and DPhil theses, and miscellaneous pamphlets. I’ve only been in that room twice ever, and I suspect there is more to be uncovered during future visits!

The Sackler Library also houses a major research centre for Egyptology, including papyrology , and the work being done here warrants its own blog post (or even entire blog), so watch this space…

[NB the Sackler Library has now been renamed to the Art, Archaeology and Ancient World Library]

RBSCG Conference on Speaking Truth to Power: Making Special Collections Work in Times of Recession, September 2012

Over two months ago now, I attended a CILIP-organised Rare Books and Special Collections Group (RBSCG) Conference at Lady Margaret Hall in Oxford, and at last I am writing a blog post about it!

The conference was entitled Speaking Truth to Power: Making Special Collections Work in Times of Recession; I attended the third and final day, when the focus was on what special collections can contribute to communities.  Perhaps the main attraction for me was the second talk of the morning, given by Judy Faraday, Partnership Archivist, John Lewis.  (To all John Lewis lovers, I am sure it will be obvious why!)  Whilst she was approaching the importance of special collections from a very specific, corporate point of view, Faraday’s understanding of her own role within John Lewis was so relevant to libraries and the contemporary issues they are facing.  She described how she needs to justify her existence to the John Lewis Partnership, by demonstrating that her work can and does have an impact, as well as being relevant to the company’s overarching agenda.  For us, then, as future librarians, the key to making special collections – or indeed the regular library catalogue – work in times of recession is simply to find ways to make them work.  We must be able, and willing, to either see possibilities for the books and spaces over which we have guardianship, or create possibilities so that we can always justify their and our existence.  The answer won’t always be the same in every situation, and perhaps this is where the true variety and enjoyment of librarianship lies.

Neil MacInnes, Head of Libraries, Information and Archives, Manchester City Library, began the morning’s talks, explaining to us the work being done in Manchester to reassert the city’s Central Library as a valuable space and resource for the community.  He spoke of special collections touring the local libraries nearby in order to expose them to new audiences; café tabletops onto which images of special collections will be projected; displays and exhibitions on local history, which people will hopefully want to engage with.  For more details see:


As well as making special collections seem more relevant, I think that this focus on visitor experience, which it is often suggested has been undervalued in the past, will potentially help visitors to feel more relevant to the library and the things it has to offer.  This is of course the key to community living – understanding the nature and importance of our relationship to the spaces in which we move, and in which we encounter others.

Christopher Parkin, Lead Education Officer, Museum of the History of Science, Oxford, provided a third insight into the importance of special collections to the community, focusing on the relevance of the Museum’s antiquarian science books.  Parkin’s was a unique insight, since the objectivity of the book offers scope for discussions on the science of materiality and construction.  The book itself, as well as what it has to say, is thus relevant to the aims and purposes of the Museum; its calls to be viewed, touched and utilised are all the louder for it.  This, along with the fact that the Museum accommodates visits from many school children, for whom interactions with actual objects and not just ideas can really bring the history of science to life, reminds us just how problematic a special collection’s relevance can be.  Its ‘special’, individual quality is both the reason it should be protected and cared for, and the reason for utilising it.  I think that this dichotomy of utility and preservation will prove particularly prevalent within the public library sector in the future, for two reasons.  Firstly, it must surely be the case that public libraries are custodians of special collections on behalf of the communities that they serve; the public therefore has a right to access and enjoy the collections.  Secondly, as Neil MacInnes highlighted, librarians’ plans for their libraries must tap into Councils’ agendas; anything that contributes something positive and enticing to a public space, and which is made relevant to people of all ages and backgrounds, will almost certainly do the trick.

What with justifying ourselves and our libraries, making our collections interesting to those whom we serve, and taking responsibility for the preservation of special collections, it seems to me that there’s plenty to keep the library and information profession, and its professionals, relevant for a good while yet.

A day working in Room 206 (Rare Books)

In the recent post about noise levels in libraries, much of the discussion has focused on what libraries are for. The consensus seems to be that libraries are for the readers: they are institutions intended to facilitate the research conducted by a varied demographic. In such a conception, customer care is the first and highest priority of the staff. That such a view should be unchallenged is demonstrative of the fact that nearly all of the trainees spend most (in some cases, all) of their time either dealing directly with customers (answering enquiries, lending material etc.) or helping to render the library a more reader-friendly environment (for instance, changing shelfmarks and labels or opening and updating Facebook pages).

The problem is, however, that this view does not represent the full gamut of librarianship. In some instances, the reader and their purposes have to be subordinated to other priorities. Dealing with rare or antiquarian books is one of those instances. Here the books themselves are the most important thing: their care is the Librarian’s objective. Indeed, the book itself assumes an entirely different character in the job of the Rare Books Librarian. No longer is the book secondary to the knowledge it contains but instead becomes an object of value in its own right, regardless of its specific contents and their use to the reader. Books become cultural artifacts, as opposed to tools in the quest for knowledge. Libraries become museums, dedicated to the careful storage and preservation of the book. Bibliography, conservation and literary history become the key areas of study for the librarian, rather than information management and customer service.

So too do relations with the reader shift, becoming far more troubled: they adopt some aspects of being a struggle for control. The reader wishes to use the book for his or her particular purposes but the Rare Books Librarian has to defend the book from any usage that may damage it or render it liable to theft. So the kind of reader permitted to view the book needs to be restricted to only the most trusted, the most qualified, the most experienced. Even those who meet such stringent criteria need to conduct their research in a place specified by the Librarian: it cannot be dispatched to other libraries or other reading places.  If possible, the item should be handled by the reader only when being supervised by a qualified member of staff. The things that such reader can do with the book must also be severely curtailed: photocopying, scanning or photographing the material is forbidden. The needs of the individual researcher are thus pushed into a subsidiary position: the librarian exists not to indulge the whims of the reader but to defend the book from harm and preserve it for posterity.  It is no surprise, therefore, that some patrons become frustrated with what they perceive as the contumacious behaviour of the staff handling the rare books they need to continue their research. However, they need to understand that, where antiquarian books are concerned, the customer is not always right nor even very important to the entire process.  In an age of consumerism and egoism, such unflattering principles can be difficult to accept but it is ultimately for their own good: if such books are not preserved and kept safe, they may not survive to see another century. They will be lost to future researchers.

One of the tasks that I was given earlier this week demonstrate these principles splendidly. I was asked to move several hundred pre-1800 books from the Nicolson classification scheme to the protected area on J-Floor of the New Bodleian Stack in preparation for their reclassification. Why was this done? As is well known, the New Bodleian Library is going to be demolished and rebuilt. Those books on J-Floor will remain under the direct supervision of Special Collections. However, books in the Nicolson classification scheme will be removed, photocopied and sent to the Social Science Library where they could ultimately be lent out.  This is bad enough for the 27,000 pre-1900 items present but it would be utterly disastrous for the 700 pre-1800 Nicolson books. They would not receive the proper care nor could access to them be regulated. Theft and intentional damage would become far easier. Thus it is necessary to move them and reclassify them so that they do receive the protection they require.

Of course, it is not always possible to defend the books: the outside world will inevitably find a way to invade the closed  and orderly edifices we erect and maintain. This was proved to me earlier on Tuesday when we had a leak reported in K-Floor that had been caused by the heavy rains. The water was dripping in an area where many pre-1900 books were stored. The entire Room 206 team were dispatched to remove those books that were in harm’s way and place them in a safer and, hopefully, drier area of K-Floor. Some books unfortunately were wet enough to warrant a speedy dispatch to the conservation team but most were unharmed.

That we cannot always win should not discourage the Rare Books Librarian from maintaining his or her focus on caring for the book: as Brecht once said “Those who try may fail but those who do not try have already failed.” This is one area of librarianship where the reader must be held resolutely at arm’s length: their satisfaction is not the ultimately objective of this kind of library work.

James White, Bodleian Library

JamesHello all, I am James and I am completing my graduate traineeship at the Bodleian Library. Unlike many of the college and faculty libraries, the Bodleian gives the trainee the opportunity to experience many different departments, both on the frontline and behind the scenes. Currently I am working in the Rare Books room and helping out with the John Johnson Project. I also edit the OULS newsletter Outline.

I graduated from the University of Birmingham in 2008 having read Medieval and Modern History. In the academic year 2008/09, I completed an MA in Russian and East European Studies, focussing principally on 19th century Russian history. I worked for three years in the Main Library of my university: it was during this period when I became interested in working in academic libraries and began to consider the profession of librarian as a potential career path. I currently intend to go to library school once this programme has concluded.